The Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite

The 112th Congress convenes Wednesday so get ready to hear some political sound bites. The average sound bite is about nine seconds. Audio clips used to be much longer but they started shrinking in the 60s.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As Congressman Darrell Issa prepared to take over a powerful House committee, he delivered a message on Fox News Sunday.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Set aside for a moment the substance of what you're about to hear the congressman saying and consider how long it takes him to say it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Fox News Sunday")

Representative DARRELL ISSA (Republican, California): The sooner the administration figures out that the enemy is the bureaucracy and the wasteful spending, not the other party, the better off we'll be.

INSKEEP: That took a little under nine seconds, which means it's the average length of a soundbite in broadcast news stories.

MONTAGNE: It's been this way since at least 1992, when a University of California professor found that TV networks were broadcasting fewer politicians' words.

Mr. CRAIG FEHRMAN (Boston Globe): What he discovered was that the length of political soundbites shrank from 43 seconds in 1968 all the way down to nine seconds in 1988.

MONTAGNE: Craig Fehrman reviewed the history of the shrinking soundbite in the Boston Globe this week.

Mr. FEHRMAN: CBS decided that they were going to unveil a new policy for their coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign. That was going to be that no soundbite, no matter how pithy or profound it was, was going to run unless it lasted at least 30 seconds.

President BILL CLINTON: Al Gore is a leading expert in foreign policy, national security and arms control...

MONTAGNE: That's Bill Clinton speaking during that 1992 campaign. He had no trouble filling extra time. But many candidates had learned to keep their thoughts very, very short, as CBS soon realized.

Mr. FEHRMAN: What they quickly found was that they had to keep throwing out soundbites that simply weren't long enough. This actually led to less of the candidates talking on the air and more paraphrase from journalists. There were so many things that would have to change for 30 second soundbites to work that the experiment quickly failed.

INSKEEP: And today soundbites remain very short. Not long ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion mocked the 24-second news cycle. Politicians have adapted by choosing a few words that convey the strongest possible meanings in nine seconds or less.

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Republican Pollster): Instead of drilling for oil, exploring for energy. Instead of health care reform, the government takeover of health care.

INSKEEP: Republican pollster Frank Luntz advises politicians to use phrases that in effect try to win the argument without taking the time for argument.

Mr. LUNTZ: To be perfectly candid, I've made a very nice living out of creating soundbites, but as an academic, a professor and an author, I really wish that we had more time, more information, more discussion, and less soundbites.

MONTAGNE: There is one significant development in recent years: Online platforms like YouTube and Twitter allow politicians to reach the public directly. Of course tweets are limited to 140 characters - words that would take about nine seconds to say.

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